Mailbag: What We Learned from the 2021 Miami Open

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Hope everyone is well and on the road to vaccination.

• On the most recent pod, Jamie and I talk Miami Open and ATP Tour hijinks.

• Up next: Michael Chang discusses coaching-in-Corona, the wisdom of the under-arm serve, and how he is experiencing this horrible surge of anti-Asian attacks.

• This will put a smile on your face: Carla Suarez Navarro is back to training.

• Reader Stewart Verdery sent this lovely piece on his father. Sending condolences to the family of a tennis fan.

Onward….while suddenly wondering whether the 2021 French Open will go off as planned….

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Jon, I know you are big on Naomi Osaka but I am not so sure. On your podcast the woman [Jamie Lisanti] asked about Osaka and you let her off easy. If you are the best player in the world, you shouldn’t be losing matches like that. She still has these lulls and I still don’t know how tough she is. And if we know anything about tennis, it’s that toughness means more than forehands and backhands.
Larren W.

• I remain all-chips-in-the-center-of-the-table on Osaka. She possesses power to burn. She is deceptively athletic. She is deceptively strong from defensive positions. She is a professional about her conditioning and fitness so you can’t really beat her via body blows. And toughness? She’s shown again and again that you underestimate her fight at your peril. Organically—not as a con—she is difficult for other players to dislike; so no one arrives pumped for battle. The “assets” column overflows. Last week in Miami, for the first time in more than a year, she lost a match she probably shouldn’t have lost. Overall, I’d say she’s doing fine.

Yes, Osaka has these “lulls,” as the writer characterizes them. The loss she suffered last week was mystifying. But I like her escape valve of coming clean and admitting when she is swelling with confidence. (It’s healthier than projecting artificial confidence.) If she can see-saw between indomitable and beatable, she seems okay with it.

If Osaka were colonizing tennis, I would say that she has done well in the United States, Asia and Australia. But there’s still lots of territory to conquer in Europe. She still struggles on clay. And her best show at Wimbledon is round three (and the one time she has played as major champion—in 2019—she lost in round one to the pugnacious Putintseva.) So, in terms of next steps, it’s pretty simple: do in Europe what you’ve done everywhere else. Speaking of WTA optimism…..

Another tournament, another injury for Bianca Andreescu. I want to be a fan but I don’t know if my heart can take it. Jon, help!
Bea, Toronto

• Be a fan. Or bea, a fan. I understand your concern. But two details: a) Andreescu played terrific, encouraging tennis to get to the Miami final. She beat top players. In tight matches. In uncomfortable conditions. A lot of reason for optimism. B) She was—again—injured, but it was a fluke. She rolled her ankle, the kind of injury that could happen to anyone and she ought to be fine in a few weeks. If it were something chronic or requiring surgery, it would be one thing. But this was a conventional “sports injury.” All told, there’s so much to like here. The variety. The will. The smudge of confident/cocky.

I don’t mean to sound like a money-changer in the temple, but talk of the Miami Open as a “fifth Slam” rings a bit hollow when the champion’s purse is $300,000, down 78% from the last pre-pandemic event. That is only one-tenth of what the most recent U.S. Open paid and about one-seventh what this year's Australian Open paid. Why have even the most prestigious non-Slam events had to cut prize money so drastically compared to the majors?
Teddy C., NYC

• Especially when Indian Wells is offering full prize money. That October offer still holds. At least for a little while longer. Man, will the tours be sorry when they reject it and then the Asia swing either collapses or can’t pay full boat….

You’ve probably gone over this before, however I’m curious as to the early start times for the men’s and women’s finals at the Miami Open. It makes more sense to start those matches in primetime especially considering Miami’s heat and humidity. Is this solely driven by TV networks wanting the match in primetime for Europe?
Robert Twomey, Webster, Fla.

• For a while this owed simply to CBS. It wanted to get the action from Miami on the air so it could get to other weekend sports programming, including March Madness. Lately, it’s more the perils of a global sport. Overseas rightsholders need to be fed as well. And it’s all self-perpetuating, no? The fewer players from your region…the less leverage you have in negotiating TV times…the harder it is to expose the sport…the fewer players from your region.

What is your take on the tennis players who are skeptical of the vaccine? I was disappointed to read it but maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
Bill, Atlanta

• Agree and agree. It was disappointing to read how many players were not inclined to get vaccinated and/or had suspicions and skepticism about vaccines. (Vaccines that have been trialed and approved and save lives—not just yours but the lives of other people.)

Charitably: for these players, their bodies are not just their temples but are essential to their success….they abide by a strict list of banned substances, monitoring everything they ingest; so suddenly being asked to submit to a vaccine might be, at a minimum, deeply uncomfortable….they might come from countries and cultures that have a knotty history with inoculation. Less charitably: this is another expression of the self-absorption and self-centeredness required for success in an individual sport.

Something that occurred to me watching the Miami Open, especially in light of what feels like more time violations on serve: Maybe when the humidity reaches a certain level, players can get more time. Let's say the humidity reaches 60%. Players get an extra five seconds for serves, totaling 35 seconds. And then another five seconds for every 10 degrees of humidity. Toweling off in subtropical locales seems like a real necessity. Thoughts?
Jason Rainey, Austin

• Not bad. I’d like to see players start with less time, and then work up to the full 30; rather than have humidity trigger a “bonus.” But your idea is a good one. I am reminded though of Major League Baseball. For years, Major League Baseball was confronted with creeping increases in game times, which were exceeding three hours. “Fans are getting bored. Attention spans are declining. We need to pick up the pace,” came the refrain. But no one was willing to make any substantive changes. Finally, a motion passed to do away with the formality of the intentional walk. Simply let the batter go to first base, rather than go through the motion of tossing four errant pitches. How much time did this “innovation” trim off the game? 40 seconds.

We can crack down on extended ball bouncing and elaborate rituals and reflexive toweling. But if the goal is to speed up the pace, create more action and a more media-friendly product, we need to think bigger.

Congrats to both Hubert Hurkacz for winning the biggest title of his career and Jannik Sinner (all of 19 years of age) for reaching the biggest final of his career at the Masters 1000 Miami Open. What does it say about Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sasha Zverev and Andrey Rublev that with none of the Big Three and Dominic Thiem playing in one of the three biggest tournaments of the year outside of the four majors that none of them were able to step up and take this title? Their respective results were quarterfinals, quarterfinals, second round, and semifinals.

Yes, Hurkacz and Sinner are super talented and I expect Sinner to be a major singles winner someday, but Hurkacz only reached one Masters 1000 quarterfinal and one third round at major before, while Sinner has only played in three Masters 1000 tournaments. How disappointing is it for these four players that they couldn’t take advantage of such a major opportunity? What does it say about their mental games? Yes, the men’s tour is very deep, but they need to step up their games.
Pedro Pelaez

• First, let’s keep going giving the two finalists props. The last match of Miami featured the 26th seed beating the 21st seed. But dig deeper. Jannik Sinner is an iridescent talent who doesn’t turn 20 until August. And most of the tennis salon is in agreement: he will win majors one day. And Hubert Hurkacz (can we officially nickname him the Polish Rifle already?) has, for several years, been regarded as a dangerous player who could do really big things, if only he could get out of his own way. Now, he is more proof that you can lose your reputation for “shaky closing” (the new anodyne term for “choking”). Congrats to them both.

On the other hand….we, as a tennis community, need to do a serious “level reset.” I’m envisioning a young kid taking inventory of the men’s field and saying to his folks, “These guys aren’t that good. They don’t even have double-digit majors.” I don’t disagree that Zverev, Rublev, Medvedev and Tsitsipas didn’t cover themselves in glory in Miami. But in the Olden Days—before Federer, Nadal and Djokovic made the latter rounds of events as a matter of ritual—top players often failed to fulfill their seedings.

My first question is in regards to players organization, union, and the comparisons to NFL et al. You left out the PGA and the LPGA as more relevant comps. Whatever it is they’re doing, the ATP should bottle and duplicate. Tiger Woods lifted that entire sport out of the doldrums and minted dozens if not hundreds of new millionaire players.

Secondly, the scourge of Pickleball has to be nipped in the bud. This non-native species is starting to infect the minds of local planners here in Mass. As I sat in on a recent community meeting (it was pre-pandemic) and they discussed the work being proposed on a nearby park with two tennis courts, they wanted to convert it to one for tennis and one for Pickleball. I rushed to point out that while you can play Pickleball on a tennis court you CAN NOT do the same the other way as a tennis court has considerably bigger dimensions. I’m not sure they listened to me. The final draft is still being discussed.
Joe

• Great questions. Tennis versus golf isn’t quite apples-to-apples. It’s like apples to plums. But tennis players make far less of gross revenues than do golfers—also independent contractors on a tour run as an umbrella non-profit. Golfers earn between 30-35% of gross revenues. There are the usual debates about pension contributions and bonus pool contributions and whether accommodations are counted. But as a rule, one-third is a good approximation. Tennis is considerably less.

I say it again: inasmuch as one sport can acquire another, tennis needs to embrace Pickleball, to treat it as a complement, not a substitute. Tennis Channel might want to televise pickleball. The USTA might want the data from every pickleball player. Tennis events might want to hold pickleball demonstrations between matches. These are devotees of racket sports with disposable income. I would run to this group. Quick, agile steps.

Players no longer argue much about line calls but they still get cross with let calls from the chair. Why can't the video equipment be used to show lets instead of relying on a buzzer on the umpire's desk?
Elsie Misbourne, Washington D.C.

• And foot faults as well.

Press Releasing

• Top young juniors Juncheng “Jerry” Shang (16, Bradenton, Fla.) and Liv Hovde (15, McKinney, Texas) won the adidas Easter Bowl Boys’ and Girls’ 18s singles titles on Sunday. Colette Lewis has your recap coverage here.

• The USTA joins an elite group of sports leagues, teams, organizations, and brands as part of the Global Sports Venture Studio. GSVS is a joint venture between R/GA Ventures and the L.A. Dodgers’ Elysian Park Ventures, bringing together leaders from the world’s top sports organizations to identify, develop, and operationalize new athlete and fan experiences through startup pilots and investments and the development of new products, services, and technologies.

GSVS provides its partners with cross-collaboration learnings and opportunities, access to cutting-edge startups, and private programming centered around critical topics shaping the sports industry’s future, including the importance of youth sports, the power of data, the rise of sports betting, and more.

• Hsieh Su-Wei has today reclaimed the WTA Doubles World No.1 ranking, replacing Aryna Sabalenka who held the top spot for the last six weeks.

• Betty Scott of San Fran, take us out:

Hi Jon. I've just finished reading your 3/31 column: What the ATP Players' Group Controversy Reveals About the Entire Sport of Tennis

IMHO, one of the biggest problems is the composition of the ATP Board. It's rife with conflicts of interests. They keep appointing former tennis players and tournament directors when they should have a few businessmen on board. Of course, the structure fractures further by all the tournaments, with the exception of the Slams, being owned by different entities.

I also feel that the word “partnership” is being used incorrectly here. I don't know what kind of agreement a player signs to become a member of the Association. Assume it has some language about agreeing to follow the ATP rules and code of conduct. I sincerely doubt the word “partnership” is used. They are partners in a “one group needs the other group” sense, but that's more of a mutually benefit relationship than a partnership. (This is akin to the use of the word “friend”—there are close friends and Facebook friends, who are not actually friends at all.) The tournaments need the players and the players need the tournaments, but in no way is Larry Ellison a partner of the players in a business sense.

Isner recently said: “It's not so much about the prize money. We don't really want to make it about that. Maybe it's about tour structure that the players would like to have a little bit more, I guess, better knowledge of as to why decisions are made, what went into making each decision.” While I can appreciate his view here, I don't agree. The tournament owners bear the expense and burden of putting on the tournament. Maybe it makes money, maybe it doesn't (I doubt that the 250s and 500s make much.) Take the Indian Wells last minute cancellation last year. Putting aside insurance issues, one can assume Ellison lost a ton of money when the tournament didn't go forward. Ticket and sponsorship money had to be returned, but all the expenses to get the venue up and running were already paid out.

How do they even know how profitable these tournaments are? Ellison won't be handing over his financials for perusal simply because he doesn't have to. The U.S. Open is obviously a hugely profitable event, but the USTA's mission is to "promote and develop the growth of tennis" and the profit funds their operations and all things USTA related. You're going to take money away from that for the players? And what players are we talking about? I do think the money for winning a Slam is ridiculous. The 2020 winner got $3M and that was reduced. First round was $61,000. I'm not in favor of increasing early round payouts. The money is needed at the Challenger level, which is a pittance. But I never got the impression that the PTPA is campaigning for that. In fact, I'm unsure exactly what they want. A bit premature to form an Association with no mission or business plan in place.

I'm not saying the players don't have legitimate complaints but the entire structure of the entire sport would have to be changed and I don't see that happening.